[Content Note: Classism, regionalism, misogyny, fat bias, racism.]
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo airs on TLC and is in its second season.
For the ridiculous sum I pay for cable, I watch approximately 5 channels: Food Network, Cooking Channel, Investigation Discovery, the Oprah Winfrey Network, and any random channel that might have a show that lets me get my crime TV/forensic fix. When these channels simultaneously broadcast shows that I have seen or that I don't like, my life is thrown into an uproar. I typically throw down the remote and pick up a book.
Occasionally, I go channel-surfing. During one such surfing-in-desperation episode, I stumbled upon the premiere of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." I saw people on Facebook writing about it and got the gist of the background of the Shannon/Thompson family (if you're not familiar, the show is about the now-seven-year-old Alana Thompson, who competes in children's beauty pageants and her family, including her mom and dad, three older sisters, and new born niece). I expected to be critical of the beauty pageant element, in particular, and what I thought would be the drudgery of it (I don't like reality TV), in general. I do have a lot to say about the children's pageant element, but I found that, overall, I liked the family. One of the main reasons is that, as rural southerners, they are familiar to me. I found the mother, June Shannon, funny, confident, and patient with her girls. I watched more than one episode, a true sign of my interest.
But… within a few episodes, I realized, to the producers of this show, my feelings about June and her family must seem an anomaly. In my opinion, whoever is staging this show goes out of hir way to make this family a subject of mockery, ridicule, and disgust. From the opening montage, the audience gets a clue of what to expect—the family is first gathered, all smiling, as if they are posing for a portrait. And then, someone passes gas and they dissolve into arguing amongst themselves. Why, you may wonder, are they repeatedly cast in such an unflattering light? I believe we are meant to be repulsed by them because of a number of social characteristics of the family members: they are southern, working class, and some of them are fat.
I cannot list all the tropes trotted out to play on stereotypes of people who fall in the aforementioned category, but let me try. We see June, the heaviest member of the family, eating. No shame in that right? But we see her eating in ways that we can look down upon. We see her eating with her hands. We see the show edited (for example, the Thanksgiving show) to make it seem that she eats non-stop. We see her eating large portions (as on her date with her partner, Sugar Bear). And we are encouraged to make judgments on how she cooks for and feeds her children, some of whom (including Alana) are heavy. She sprinkles sugar on their already sweetened cranberry sauce and says it's how they get their servings of fruit. She makes a dish called "sketti" that includes spaghetti, ketchup, and butter. She tells us about feeding them venison culled from deer killed in car accidents. As if that does not drive the point home enough, Alana laments the fact that they haven't had venison in a while, noting that, "It's been a while since I had road kill in my belly."
Largely ignored is June's comment that she is trying to feed a family of six on $80 a week, leaving little room for gourmet fare, and that she cooks almost everyday to control food costs.
And, oh, these uncouth southerners! The children curse. The parents curse. They argue and laugh loudly. The camera makes sure to document each time they pass gas or burp or pick their noses. They play in mud on several episodes (I mean, you know how we southerners love our dirt—food, toy, flooring—it's multi-purpose!). They go to "Redneck Games." The editing of one episode emphasizes that gnats fly around them. When Alana meets the current Ms. Georgia, Ms. Georgia notes that she is unsure of how far the little girl will go in the pageant world because of her lack of refinement. And attempts to teach Alana "proper" etiquette seem exasperating for the child and the instructor, as if the little girl is hopeless!
The presented image of Sugar Bear, too, is often unflattering. He is always shown with a pinch of chewing tobacco in his mouth, leading to comments about his breath. He speaks softly and seems shy and, quite often, scenes are edited to emphasize that June is the "boss" and the girls pay him little attention. This further contributes to the appearance of the family as disordered, given our culture's creation and castigation of "matriarch" figure and common lamentations about men losing their status in various ways.
But I don't see Sugar Bear as weak because he is quiet. In fact, in Sugar Bear, I see my own dad and my favorite uncle. My dad was a quiet man who loved pickup trucks and hunting and fishing and dealt with my sister and me gently. My uncle is much the same way and, like Sugar Bear and many southern men, he's usually chewing a pinch of tobacco and clamoring for a "spit cup." I do not find him disgusting. I have never been repulsed by his breath or his tobacco habit. A quiet disposition does not indicate a lack of engagement or importance in a family circle. Sugar Bear's love for June and those girls is obvious. He works hard for his family. And when June's oldest daughter, his step-daughter, has a baby, his sweet words about how she reminded him of Alana and seeing him cuddling the newborn reinforced the comparison I made between him and my dad.
The Shannon/Thompson family has a strong sense of themselves as working class southerners and are even untroubled by the term "redneck"—and why should they be, given "redneck's" origin as a term to describe hard-working farmers whose necks were burned red by exposure to the sun? But given all the negative connotations that label has, it seems outside the realm of possibility to the producers of the show that one can be comfortable and even proud of a rural southern identity.
In comments of posts or articles that talk about the show, you will commonly see them called "white trash," as well. Now, I have to say, first, that while I understand the sentiments of poor white people and scholars who have tried to "reclaim" the term "white trash," it is a very problematic term, particularly in its implication that "white trash" is such an anomaly that we must include a racial marker. Most white people are not perceived to be trash, thus the label; but what does this say we think about people of color? The racialized terms by which we are referred have been constructed in ways that imply an innate subordination, impoverishment, "less-ness" in a way that the term "white" has not been constructed. In fact, so anomalous is "white trash," that scholar Matt Wray explored the idea that people given this label are often perceived as "not quite white."
For the purposes of this essay, I want to focus on another adverse meaning of the labeling of the Shannon/Thompson family as "white trash": in the words of Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, "white trash" is often the "white Other," "the difference," indeed, the "threat" within the bounds of the privileged status of whiteness. There is no clearer evidence in "Honey Boo Boo" that the South and, in this case, white southerners are being othered, portrayed as foreign, unknown, and unknowable, than the fact that the family's speech is captioned, as if our English is any more accented than that of people from other regions of the United States! But those other accents are normative, unnoticeable, default, and, in the end, not an accent at all, but the way "real" USians talk!
I think the whole family is portrayed in a way to make each member an object of ridicule, but I believe our greatest disgust is supposed to be reserved for June. June seems, to me, to have a great attitude. She finds the humor in many situations and she is affectionate with her girls. She is confident about her relationship with Sugar Bear and her attractiveness to him. She is a bit adventurous and she likes to have fun. June is also money savvy; she endeavors to be an "extreme couponer": "You save money for your family—that's what it's all about," she said [on Jimmy Kimmel Live]. "I could be a multi-millionare and still want to get the best deal for my family." Additionally, "she's putting the show's earnings into trust funds for her children," noting that, "I want my kids to look back and say, 'Mama played it smart.'"
Funny, confident, beautiful, smart… apparently, those are all things forbidden to fat southern women. When June decides to have fun on a water slide, the camera focuses on the fact that she struggles to climb it (even then, she laughs amiably at herself and is clearly having a good time, but the joke is supposed to be on her—HaHa! She's too fat for this!). She notes that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that she and Sugar Bear both appreciate her beauty (a fact that he confirms). Yet, she is shown as the opposite of all those things that are constructed as beautiful in our society, from her disdain for makeup to her refusal to obsess over her weight. And, true to common characterization of southerners, there are plenty of "d'oh!" moments when we are given the impression that the family members are not intelligent. I cannot, in one post, catalogue all the ways this woman is mocked and cast as the butt of some joke that everyone else is in on.
But, what really endears June, and indeed, all her family, to me, is the fact that, in the face of a country that derides most things about them, they STAY proud and true to who they are, something that I understand as (and I deeply, deeply hope is) a refusal to accept the mandate that they apologize for being themselves, for being working-class and southern. When I see June, I am reminded of Liss's post about having the audacity to be fat and happy and I can't help smiling myself.
For me, the othering of the South and southerners, the positioning of us as inferior to northerners, the constant stream of jokes about our stupidity and "in-breeding," our "strange" food (and even deadly, until soul food and southern food are properly gentrified by northern chefs—but that's another post!) and weird customs, means that I proclaim my southern-ness often and loudly, from the language I use on social media to referring to myself as a southern (b)elle to making a conscious effort to use my "real" voice in my classes and other settings so that my accent, which I find lovely and luscious, shines through. And while part of that has come from the process of being comfortable in my own skin, part of it is DEFINITELY a "Ha! I am progressive, smart, funny AND southern"-thumbing-of-my-nose at those who would believe such a person cannot exist. I read June's actions and attitude in the same light. I have a delightful feeling that I am right.